All posts by Jim Stitzel

Jim cultivates interests in a variety of areas. He is an avid storyteller, specializing in (dark) speculative fiction and webcomics. He is also a professional code wrangler and dabbles in amateur photography.

Smoke Merchants

This entry is part 2 of 11 in the series Market of the Macabre

He winds his way through the chaos, trying to avoid bumping into anyone. Such a thing is nigh impossible here. But it hardly bothers him. Here, anonymity is paramount.

Finally, he reaches a dark corner where two grey men sit. He sits across from them, aware of the open room at his back. An acceptable risk.

“You have it?” he asks the men. They exchange nervous glances.

“ID,” one says, voice tense.

“Of course,” he replies and produces an odd coin from a pocket. It is large, embossed with an image so profane the two merchants visibly flinch. It is enough. One of the grey men reaches down and produces a small, red box. He handles it gingerly, sliding it across the table.

“You know what this contains,” the merchant says.

“Of course.” At last! His eyes are captivated by the box, riveted by his prize. Without looking up, he says, “You may go.” The merchants are gone in an instant.

“I have you now,” he says and grins. He lifts the box near his face, inhaling deeply. He can almost smell the smoke inside.

Bearers

Olivia hits the ground with a sickening crunch, but she barely feels it. Her vision is swimming, her ears ringing, and it takes her a moment to realize she’s landed left hip on the pavement, her arms supporting her upper torso. Her jaw throbs with a dull ache, the site of the punch that sent her sprawling. She shakes her head slowly, lightly, trying to clear the disorientation. It helps, some, as her vision snaps back into focus. She is relieved to see Petalbloom still held securely in her right fist.

Slowly, carefully, she pushes herself up to her knees and then to her feet. Petalbloom’s Weight resists the motion, but only slightly, as if to remind her of what it is. She hefts it reflexively, sunlight glinting along the length of the 12-inch blade. With her free hand, she wipes a dribble of blood flowing from her burst lower lip down over her chin.

That should not have happened, she thinks, staring at the blood glistening on her fingers. Then aloud, “That should not have happened.” She turns to face her assailant, who stares her down mere steps away in the alley, smug expression fixed on his face.

“You,” she says, a puzzled tone to her voice. “You’re a Bearer?” His response is to spread his arms wide and grin even wider, as if to say, So? Only one of his hands is gloved, and she realizes, too late, that the glove itself is an Object. It is wrapped in that unmistakable aura of Weight that all Objects possess.

Which only confuses her further. “You’re a Bearer,” she repeats, incredulity replacing confusion. “And you fight me?” she asks. “Why?”

He laughs, dropping his arms and tilting his head back, roaring at the sky with obvious delight. Then he looks back at Olivia, his eyes cold and hard, all traces of a smile wiped from his face. Olivia notes a glimmer of madness in those eyes and feels the flesh on her arms prickle.

“Why not?” is all he answers.

“But, Bearers are supposed to be heroes,” she stammers, that note of confusion returning to her voice. “We don’t fight each other. We fight monsters. We fight evil. We push back the darkness wherever we find it. That is our purpose and our calling. No Bearer can claim an Object without first accepting those terms.”

His face turns suddenly angry, livid with rage, and she feels a cold fist of fear in her belly. His next words are even colder, like frost on a mid-summer’s day.

“Go be a hero, then, Olivia Childress,” he spits, and she tries not to let the shock that he knows her name show on her face. “Not all of us are meant for such things. Maybe some of us are meant to be something else. Maybe some of us meant to be antiheroes. Maybe some of us are meant to be Breakers.”

He turns on his heel and begins to walk away, and Olivia feels that cold chill of fear on her skin once more at that word she has never heard before but immediately recognizes as somehow being fundamentally wrong.

One final question escapes her lips.

“WHO ARE YOU?” Her own voice is deafening, enhanced by the Weight she bears. It thunders down the alley, bouncing off the walls. The ringing returns to her ears, nearly drowning out his answer.

“You’ll know soon enough, Olivia child!” His laughter drifts back to her even after he turns a corner and disappears from sight.


Caught Between a Lull and Quiet Place

I’m sitting here right now, trying to decide what to do with myself. And I don’t mean just on an immediate, here-and-now, should I pick up a controller and play a game or write a story sort of way, though that’s certainly a part of it. I mostly mean it in the sense of what do I do with myself moving forward with my life? I find myself caught in this lull of a place where I’m unable to find work, much as I need and want it. I’m either overqualified for certain positions I’ve applied for or job postings change scope mid-stream so that my application is no longer relevant to the position or maybe I’m just interviewing badly. I don’t really know, but whatever the case is, landing a job has become this herculean task that has started to feel impossible. And it doesn’t help that my anxiety disorder, while much improved from what it was even just a couple of months ago, still limits and prohibits me from taking on work that is fast-paced and high-stress. I’m working on that, trying to retrain my brain to interpret those panicky fight-or-flight signals as excitement and enthusiasm rather than fear and trepidation. But it’s not easy, it’s a process, and it takes time.

I’ve been telling people recently that if there’s one single lesson I’ve learned above all others this past year, it’s patience. When I got out of the hospital last April 28th (yes, exactly one year ago today), I had the expectation that, for the most part, I’d be better and healthy again within six weeks. And guess what? Here I am a year later, much improved but still struggling in some areas. Yes, I do feel healthier and stronger as a person than I have in several years, in spite of the lingering anxiety. I’m more stable and more self-aware than I have been in years. But I’ve also had to learn that healing takes time, it requires patience because it can’t all happen at once, as much as one might want it to. It takes effort and discipline and consistency to change your lifestyle to accommodate the changes in your brain and body and overall physiology. There are new skills to be learned, new coping methods, new ways of thinking and behaving, new habits to form, all the while wrestling and struggling on a daily basis with the depression and anxiety that started this whole mess to begin with. And the medication that is available for treating these disorders is a God-send, but it can’t do it all. You have to do your part, too.

There are plenty of hard days as you work through things, but as you do you find those hard days occur less and less frequently, even if they never go away completely. But you learn how to do self-care, how to be patient with yourself and not blame yourself for regressing, because that’s what it feels like. Going backward. Teaching yourself a healthier form of self-talk is important, catching yourself when your thoughts turn negative and turning them around into something positive. Inserting reminders that your brain is lying to you, that you have worth and value, that people actually do love and care about you. And again, all that takes time to learn and turn into a habit.

And of course, life doesn’t just stop around you and wait for you to catch up. It keeps on traveling by all lickety-split, almost seeming to laugh at you as it does. You find yourself moseying along at what already feels like a break-neck pace but is more like a cripple hobbling along on crutches. You find yourself watching things happen that you want to be a part of — and just can’t right now. And you either have to learn to make your peace with that or give up altogether — and I don’t consider the latter to be an option.

So I find myself caught between a lull, where I can’t find work and have trouble sometimes finding ways to occupy my free time, and what feels like a never-ending quiet place, because it feels like nothing is ever going to change. I fight impatience on a daily basis, both to continue finding victory over my anxiety and with the frustrating process of finding an employer who will hire me. I also face discouragement and loneliness and criticism — and facing all those things down demands patience. I’ve been learning more and more over the last several months to lean on my faith and rely on my God, trusting that He has a plan for all this and that it’s part of His plan for me right now to be exactly here. It’s a difficult thing to accept most days, but it is what it is and there’s nothing for me to do but accept it and continue to be patient, to wait on His plan. His timing is perfect, his plan for me is flawless, and I just have to trust and hope and wait.

It’s a journey and a process, and I continue to take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and sometimes even one breath at a time.

Weeping in the Willows

The child sits at the base of the tree, silently weeping. Her arms are crossed over her upraised knees, her face buried in her arms. Tears fall from her cheeks, staining her pants and the soil on which she sits. A few even land on the tree roots.

A gentle touch on her cheek startles her, and she looks up. She is alone, the canopy of the willow sheltering her.

The tree itself rustles, its branches gently swaying. The child’s misery turns to puzzlement. There is no wind, and yet the tree sways of its own accord.

More tears slip from her eyes. Another gentle touch, this time on her opposite cheek, and she turns to catch sight of a branch brushing a tear away. A single, salty drop rests on a leaf then drips to the ground as the branch pulls away.

The child is in wonder, her pain momentarily forgotten. She looks up at the tree, amazed to see a face there, sad but compassionate.

Her tears flow anew, her grief given release. She leans her head against the willow as its branches envelop her in a tender embrace.

My Defiance

It soared out of midnight, all gas envelope and aerosolized Nightmare, propelled by only God knows what. It carried a tiny bomber bay, loaded with a lethality that would have made any nation quake to its roots, if any knew it existed.

The airship was black as night and quiet as death. It harbored no pilot, guided only by an intricate clockwork array designed to get the ship from Point A to Point B. No living navigator could have survived such close proximity to the payload for the duration of the voyage.

And so the vessel sailed on, unheeded and unnoticed.

Until…

A klaxon sang out somewhere far below. Spotlights lit the night, sweeping the sky for a target. One swept past the airship — then back. Others joined it, until the whole thing was lit from the ground.

The beam of one light narrowed, focusing on the bay, searching for… something.

There! A name.

My Defiance.

A question as much as an answer, neither of which would ever be known. The torpedo doors opened, and death fell from the sky.

Flames of the Fire

This entry is part 18 of 18 in the series The Rusted Blade

“Orthael!” she spat. “Protector of life, servant of the All-Consumer.” Her voice dripped disdain. “Summoned by a local parish, no doubt.” Orthael nodded. “To protect us.” He nodded again.

“Well, holy man, where were you when my village was destroyed by one of the Greater Dead? Where were you when everything and everyone I loved and cared about was ruined utterly?” Malika was weeping openly now, her grip tightening on Morduth’s hilt, its blue flames traveling further up her arm with each spoken word. “Where were you when we needed you, when I needed you?”

She lowered Morduth, bringing the sword into a ready position, and when she spoke again, her voice was cold, empty, bereft of grief and rage alike.

“Defend yourself, holy man, if you can. I would know the strength of your resolve — and the power of your god.”

And with that she charged, raising Morduth to strike even as the sword voiced a single word of alarm and objection:

MISTRESS!

And then blade crossed blade, blue flame mixing with orange.

An Introduction and a Challenge

This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series The Rusted Blade

“I ask you again,” Malika said. “Who be you, and how be it you come to be here, just at this very moment? Be you a final test, holy man or not, to confirm my resolve, to baptize me in the fire of purification against the forces of Ashmar?” She could feel her tone rising with every word, feel the heat of anger warm her face, feel the wetness of the tears sliding down her cheeks once more. “What be you, holy man? I would know, else I cut you down where you stand.”

Mistress… Morduth cautioned, but he was cut short as the other man spoke.

“I am Orthael, young swordmaiden,” he replied, “Paladin, holy warrior of the All-Church, servant of the All-Consuming Fire, wielder of Judgement versus the demons of Ashmar.”

He was silent then, and Malika took a long a moment to evaluate this man who stood so calmly before her. The rage and despair welled up inside her once more, and when she spoke again, she found herself shouting, her rage and grief now full and complete.

Of the Dark, Of the Light

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series The Rusted Blade

Malika brought Morduth up so it pointed at the newcomer. Blue flame flared up bright and tall along the blade’s length, spilling over the hilt and onto her hand and wrist. She didn’t notice. All her attention was on this man of the cloth standing before her and on the weapon he carried.

Strangely, his sword seemed to call to her, not with desire to be wielded by her hand. It was clear it belonged well and truly to this holy man. Instead, it was more a voice of camaraderie, of kindred spirits, of alliance.

Morduth seemed to feel it as well. Mistress, that weapon he carries is no mere sword.

“I can see that,” she murmured back, watching the orange flames licking along the edge of the sword.

No, you misunderstand, Mistress, Morduth continued. That sword is easily as old as I am — and possibly even more powerful.

Malika nodded. She felt something else, too. The power of her blade was born of darkness and pain while the power of his was clear and bright like a blade-shaped window into a summer’s day.

Servants of Fire

This entry is part 14 of 18 in the series The Rusted Blade

Malika wiped away the tears from her eyes with the palm of one hand and gracefully rose to her feet, turning to face the newcomer.

“Be you friend or foe?” she asked. “Morduth insists you be friend, but I be not so willing to trust in his judgment just yet.”

Mistress, replied the sword, I am hurt. The sword’s tone in her mind was more amused than injured, and so she ignored the jab. She had eyes only for the stranger before her, who remained cloaked in shadow at the edge of the clearing.

“Step forward,” she commanded, “so I may determine for myself. I have no fear of either man or beast.” She gestured to the dozens of dead and torn lycander bodies littered around her. “I have no fear of you, for Mardain blesses me this night.” At this the sword in her hand flared briefly again, as if to confirm her claim.

The man stepped forward, and Malika saw that he was robed in the vestments of the Church — and carried a sword of his own.

“Be at rest, child,” he said, “for I believe we both fight for the Fire.”

Uncomfortable Silence

Jimmy set his lunch down on the break table and plopped down in a chair, heaving a huge sigh.

“Man, what a day,” he said, picking up his sandwich and taking a bite.

“Uh…” Frank said, looking at Jimmy then glancing quickly away to catch Seth’s eye, sharing a disturbed expression.

“Whampf?” Jimmy asked around a mouthful of bread and bologna.

“Nothing,” Seth said.

Jimmy swallowed and looked between his two friends, studying their expressions. “What?” he repeated.

“It’s nothing,” Frank said, sounding uncomfortable. “Just, uh, have you looked in a mirror today?”

Jimmy tore another bite from his sandwich and chewed silently for a moment while nodding. “Of course. I had to comb my hair and shave this morning, like usual.”

“Ok,” Seth said. “We were just wondering.”

Jimmy set his sandwich down and looked again at his friends. “Seriously, guys, what’s got your dander up?”

The other two were silent for a moment. Finally, it was Seth that spoke.

“Well, you might want to look again when you get a chance.”